Generally speaking, a howling wilderness does not howl:
it is the imagination of the traveler that does the howling.
_Henry David Thoreau
There's one in every hostel. No matter where you find yourself laying your head in the youth hostelling world - you are sure to encounter one "round-the-worlder." He or she is usually upper 20's, spent the beginning of their 20's working a decent job and saving money before being disenfranchised, deciding to search for meaning in the big, wide world, buying a backpack, and a one-way ticket to Asia (if they are a hippy and like elephant-print clothing), Europe (if they forgot to study abroad in college and want to re-live their youth), or Africa (if they don't mind growing body hair and paying exorbitant amounts of money to go on safari).
This "round the worlder" can be genuinely inquisitive and good hearted, raucous and independent, super fun and friendly, or the worse kind - a narcissistic soul who thinks because they have seen one city in a country that they "know" that place and can make sweeping generalizations about a culture.
Last weekend my friend/colleague and I went 6 hours northwest of my small town and visited the border town between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda: Gisenyi. It was an incredibly beautiful place. I wish we could have turned our 2 nights into 5 or 6. It had a different energy than the places I have been in Rwanda so far - this could possibly be attributed to the proximity to Congo. We ate goat brochettes by Lake Kivu and got to visit our friend who is a Fulbright teacher in the town. I took two hot showers! The whole experience in Gisenyi was loveliness.
We stayed in a private room at the youth hostel in town and spent the evenings chatting with the other traveler patrons. That's when we met him. The "round the worlder."
We had a great chat about his 1.5 years outside his native Canada. He started in Europe, made his way to Asia, and has spent the last 11 months traversing Africa on a motorbike. Cool, right?
Then he said it. And I haven't been able to take it out of my head. We asked him how he viewed Rwanda after visiting other East African countries. I am very proud of Rwanda and I guess I was anticipating something along the lines of "It's very clean," "People are friendly," "The food is boring," etc. Instead we got...
"Where are the huts? Where are the thatched roofs?" in a disappointed voice.
I was like......what?
That's what you are here looking for? Thatched roofs? This place is somehow not the vision of Africa in your head because people who live off the main roads (which is the only place you have been in this country) sleep in homes that are covered with sheets of tin?
It felt like he was disappointed by not encountering extreme poverty. Like his Rwanda experience didn't meet his expectations because the people live too nicely. With tin roofs.
When I think about that question I am sent down a rabbit hole of philosophical reasoning and anger at backpacking culture and the notion that travelers paint the picture they want to see in their heads, rather than encountering reality. I saw this in China quite often. My Chinese friends would go to America and come back and complain about mundane things. New York City has too many homeless people, a bus broke down in Vegas (therefore all transportation in America was bad), etc. Meanwhile I would be asking them, "What about the amazing salads! Blue skies! Customer service!" Nope. They didn't notice any of these things. Just the things they wanted to see to confirm to themselves that China is better than America.
Our Canadian counterpart's statement puts him in this same category, in my opinion. He is looking for a narrative of Africa that he has been fed by Western media and is disappointed that he isn't finding it. He has a picture of what Rwanda should be - and because people do not live in thatched huts along the main roads, (surely they do in more rural areas he will never see), then he is not getting his utmost satisfaction.
Traveling in Rwanda can be stunning in many ways. The landscape is gorgeous no matter where in the country you find yourself, while on the opposite end of the stimulation spectrum - recent history is shocking and heartbreaking. There is a dichotomy of positive and negative that feels at war with itself. It's a country moving forward - with a government that is working against poverty in vivacious ways. Rwanda has been one of the most economically successful countries in recent times thanks to a one party system that values order and growth over personal freedoms. (Can we blame them?)
Rwanda is 83% rural. My province is 99% agriculture. Yet, real GDP grew 7% in 2014. Part of this growth has been the housing project planned by the government to move citizens into planned and economically viable settlements (think: commerce). Citizens in "settlements" rose over 20% from 2012-2014. This is huge. (source: http://www.afdb.org/en/countries/east-africa/rwanda/rwanda-economic-outlook/).
Part of this project is a plan to eradicate thatched roofs so that people are not living in mud. It rains often in Rwanda, and thatched roofs bring in water, need constant and expensive upkeep, and contribute to disease, rodents, and other economically disastrous conditions. The government is smart, and in 2008 started a plan to end thatched roof housing. Of course, as with any government mandate anywhere, there have been some issues. (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2011-05-31/rwandan-government-program-to-end-thatched-housing-leaves-pygmies-homeless). But the overall success of the project has led to greater economic advantages for families in rural areas.
This is great news.
I do not want my Rwandan friends to live in thatched roof housing. I want all Rwandans to live comfortably. They deserve the same life that I have had by luck of the "where you are born" draw. I want my Rwandan friends to be dressed well, to eat well, to sleep well, and to have access to health care and education. Do they not deserve the same as me? Or should economic growth not be celebrated because it impedes the small-minded notion that this is not "Africa" as we have been told it should be? If I return to Rwanda in 20 years and find it's housing/education/health systems developed to Western standards I will celebrate, not bemoan the loss of the National Geographic photo in my mind.
Ancient, indigenous, and historical cultural ways should be preserved, cultivated, and celebrated. But also, modern advancements should be as equal as possible across the globe. Rwanda can stay Rwanda while also allowing it's children to sleep in a dry, clean home under a tin roof.
It's unfortunate our "round the worlder" didn't take the time to learn about Rwanda. To celebrate it's economic achievements in the wake of horrendous atrocity. He didn't pause to think about the actual people who live in the houses along the road and consider their well-being rather than the portrait in his head of "Africa." There is a depth to the answer of, "Where are the thatched huts?"
They're not here, dude. Have a safe trip.
walk slow. xoxo.